Funny story: a number of years ago I read Blackout by Connie Willis, one of my favorite authors. I really love Connie Willis, even though there have been some disappointments (Remake is way too obvious and Promised Land. . .I don’t even want to talk about it). But when she’s on, I’m nuts for her writing. Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, which are curiously tied together by a time-travel theme and some shared characters, are two of my favorite contemporary novels, in spite of them being very different in tone. So I was kind of pissed off by Blackout the first time I read it, because I couldn’t figure out why she wrote in characters that were never to be heard of again, and why, with a handful of pages left, it didn’t seem like there was enough time to tie up all the loose ends. My frustration mounted the closer I got to the final page. Would this be a travesty like the final episode of Quantum Leap where the producers seemingly ran out of time and tacked the ending on to a summary card at the end? (Hey, who else remembers the 90s!) When I finally made it to the last page I discovered the reason for the disparity: Willis “to be continued” me!
That’s right, unbeknownst to me, this was a 2-part series. Those characters I thought had fallen into a black hole would no doubt return in part 2 (they did). What I had deemed to be flaws in the book were, perhaps, just a misunderstanding on my part. With that in mind, I recently decided to give this series another try, a fresh start. So how did it fare this time?
I’m torn. To give you context, the premise is that in Oxford, 2060, we have access to time travel, and we’ve been using it to send historians into the past to observe historic events. This is the same world where Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog took place. In Blackout, our historians are visiting England during WWII: the Blitz, Dunkirk, VE Day, and so forth. Things go wrong, as things do, and the historians are trapped in a dangerous time period, unable to communicate with their world. To make matters worse, one of them, Polly, has a “deadline,” meaning that she has already been to a later period of history, so she has to get out before then or she’ll die, they guess, even though it’s never actually happened and nobody really knows for sure.
I’m going to tell you straight out that there are a number of things that really irritated me about this series, not the least of which is that it seems like Willis’s editor never had that tough conversation with her about compactness in writing. This 2-book series clocks in at 1100 pages, about 300 of which have the characters missing buses and trains or running across campus or across England and just missing the person they are looking for. To be fair, all this “just missed them” action does eventually have a point, but it takes a long time getting there and the payoff doesn’t alleviate the frustration of the previous 1000+ pages.
My second point of irritation is the way that characters clue the reader in to the historical context. Being from 2060, they are prepared for their travels to 1940s England in that they know where bombs are going to drop and when battles are going to be lost so that they don’t find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. This all makes sense, but Willis needs to make sure that we, the readers, know that they, the characters, know what’s going on. For example, When a group of FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) are discussing a new dress, one comments,
“I do hope it [the war] doesn’t end before I have a chance to wear this.”
It won’t, Mary thought.
And then, when asked the date she wants for the pool predicting the date of the end of the war,
May eighth, 1945, she thought.
This all seems harmless, but Willis doesn’t know when to quit. After a dozen of these types of comments, I’m fed up and want to experience the story as the non-historians are experiencing it. Indeed, the story moves along at a much better pace when the historians reach the stage where they no longer know where every bomb is going to drop.
Finally, this series spends too much time trying to explain time travel. In her previous Oxford time-travel adventures, Willis lays out the general rules, gives the reader a minute to suspend her disbelief, and then uses the time travel mechanism as a means to explore another time period. There are some time travel glitches in previous books, but the time and place in which the historians land are at the forefront of the story. In Blackout and All Clear, Willis tries to divide her loyalty between WWII-era England and chaos theory.
This is a mistake, because the time dedicated to WWII-era England is wonderful and doesn’t deserve the short shrift it gets. There is so much to love about these books when Willis focuses on the time period, which, by the way, she has scrupulously studied. The rescue from Dunkirk is thrilling, partially because the historian involved is unprepared for it and can’t make snappy mental comebacks at every turn. The portrait of Londoners during the Blitz, where they are routinely bombed at night and still manage to get up and go to work every morning, is painted with painstaking accuracy and admiration. St. Paul’s Cathedral comes alive as a living, breathing character, held up by the bravery of the fire watchers the night of its bombing. The “contemps,” as the historians call them, are well drawn and intriguing, including Sir Godfrey, an elderly Shakespearean actor who carries a bit of a torch for historian Polly (in my head I’ve cast Bill Nighy in this role). All in all, the time spent dedicated to the time period is worth the slog it sometimes takes to get to it.
Still, it’s disappointing because these books could have been so much better. A harsher edit, less exposition, and the removal of a totally unnecessary Terminator-like twist in the final pages would have elevated this series to greatness. Yet much of it is memorable. The every-day bravery of the people of the time period made a deep impression on me and make this series worth reading.